Q&A with Esi Edugyan, Writer-in-Residence

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Esi Edugyan, Athabasca University's 2015-16 Writer in Residence. She is the Scotiabank Giller prize winning author for 2011's Half-Blood Blues.

Esi Edugyan, Athabasca University’s 2015-16 Writer in Residence. She is the Scotiabank Giller prize-winning author for 2011’s Half-Blood Blues.

A Writer-in-Residence is a lot more than a visiting author who provides advice to students while working on their masterpieces. He or she is also a public arts ambassador and an integral teaching and research resource among faculty.

Athabasca University’s Writer-in-Residence program boasts a long roster of preeminent and award-winning authors, including this year’s acclaimed Writer in Residence/Writer for Health Esi Edugyan.

Presented by the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, and sponsored  by ZoomerMedia Ltd., Edugyan is an award-winning writer and novelist whose second novel, Half-Blood Blues, received the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Her novel was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize that same year, running against winning author Julian Barnes and his highly acclaimed The Sense of an Ending.

AU newsroom spoke to Esi Edugyan from her home in Victoria, B.C., on how the Writer-in-Residence program works (as a service to the AU community), her connection to Alberta, online learning and juggling, and the painstakingly creative novel-writing process.

AUN: Congratulations on so many accomplishments, in a short period of time. Although your receiving the Scotiabank Giller Prize and long-list nomination for the Man Booker Prize was a few years ago—does that same sense of pleasure exist that presumably came with those honours? Or does it now feel like a notch in time, and you’re now focused on your next chapters?

EE: You know, it does and it doesn’t. Because I still haven’t published another novel (and it won’t come out until next year), you sort of feel like [the book success] is still present; that the novel continues to have a life, and you’re still discussing it. So that’s really lovely.

AUN: You were born in Calgary. How long did you live there for?

EE: I lived there until I was 17. Then I moved out to Victoria to go to the University of Victoria because they had such a renowned writing program. I did my undergraduate degree there, and I followed up with graduate work at Johns Hopkins University [in Baltimore, MD].

AUN: Does the fact that you were named Writer-in-Residence at an Alberta-based university make it more special given that you were born in Alberta?

EE: Yes, it does; it feels like an honour to [be working] from one’s home turf. It’s really nice and really delightful. It’s also given me a chance to reconnect with Alberta. I don’t get there too often, so it’s nice to come to town and connect with Alberta writers.

AUN: Had you been familiar with online learning before coming to AU as its Writer-in-Residence?

EE: Yes, insofar as I remember taking a few online English courses to complete my undergraduate degree. And I think my sister did her master’s online. It feels like things are getting more and more sophisticated, and that online learning is becoming more central.

AU: Is there a difference being a Writer-in-Residence for an online university and for a bricks-and-mortar university?

EE: The students have parameters of how to submit things. So in that respect, it’s very much like a bricks-and-mortar university. You’ve got your word count, and your guidelines as to how to approach the whole [assignment].

[Students] submit their pieces to me online through their emails, and they submit a cover letter so that I can take into account what it is they’re wanting feedback on. It’s very precise—which is not something that has happened [when I’ve] taught in the classroom and in workshops. Here, students will pinpoint and fine-tune exactly where in the piece [they] want the professor to look. I do that, and I give them feedback.

I’m someone who can’t help but comment on the bigger picture as well. Even if you’re asking about the voice of a piece, or the tense of a piece—everything is interconnected. So you’re going to get feedback on the piece as a whole, as well as the specific items you’re asking about.

It feels like things are getting more and more sophisticated and that online learning is becoming more central.

AUN: So as a Writer-in-Residence you’re actually teaching?

EE: Yes, I’m providing feedback to any instructor, or professor, or student—or to the public at large. I provide constructive feedback on any genres of writing that people want to throw at me.

AUN: But at the same time, you’re working on your own book. Is that part of the contract—that you have X amount of hours to be working on your own materials?

EE: That’s right. It’s two days a week providing feedback to the community, and then the rest of the week I’m working on my own project.

HalfBloodBlues.hirezAUN: You mentioned you’re working on your next novel and it’s going to be published next year. Are you using your same Canadian publisher or going a different route this time?

EE: The publisher who published Half-Blood Blues was a distributor who opened a publishing arm and he’s since closed that publishing arm. The publisher at that house left and went to Harper Collins, as did the editor for Half-Blood Blues –she’s now at Harper Collins. So I’m working with the editor who had originally published Half-Blood Blues. So it’s sort of the same team and the same people involved.

AUN: Does that make it easier having that familiarity and comfort level?

EE: Yes, it’s absolutely great. It was the perfect scenario for me. They’re all out of Toronto. It’s a warm place and it’s a very stable house with great distribution. And I get to work with the same editor.

AUN: Half-Blood Blues was based around music. Do you have any music influences?

EE: I grew up [playing] the piano for a very short period of time, maybe a couple of years. And 10 years ago, I took up the cello, which I played for about a year. That’s about it. I love music, but I’ve accepted that I’m not very musical!

AUN: Is it easier to craft a character that is based on some information that you don’t know very well yourself? Is part of the fun researching something that you were unfamiliar with before?

EE: Yes, definitely. For me, part of the pleasure of writing is the research. I can learn all sorts of things.

I’m providing feedback to any instructor, or professor, or student—or the public at large. I provide constructive feedback on any genres of writing that people want to throw at me.

AUN: The typical adult AU student has to juggle work and school with family responsibilities. As Writer-in-Residence, are you finding yourself juggling mom life with your university role?

EE: As soon as you said it I thought that sounds exactly like my life! In fact, I just said to my editor: “I’ve got so much going on, on the work front, and so much going on with the family front—I couldn’t possibly take on any more.” You just feel like you’re on a treadmill being pulled in so many directions.

Speaking of treadmills…

AUN: Is there anybody that gives you advice on how to navigate that and how to set up boundaries?

EE: No. I think you just do the best you can and try and learn from past experience [on] what your breaking points are, and how you can best juggle things. And then you try to not take on more than you can handle—if that’s possible.

AUN: Is there any advice you would give to an Athabasca student going through that juggling process for the first time?

EE: That’s a good question. You know, it’s so tricky. I guess it’s important to try and carve out [time] for those things that are seriously important to you. Obviously family comes first; it’s always going to be the most important thing. But try and prioritize. And if that means you have to sit down and make a physical list, then you should do that. Prioritize whatever it is that you want to achieve, on any given day, and then just go down that list.

AUN: How long did it take you to write Half-Blood Blues?

EE: The first draft was probably, all told, a year-and-a-half. And then, I guess, another year of editing.

AUN: How many hours a day do you devote to your writing?

EE: My son just started daycare so I’ve got about five-and-half hours a day to write.

AUN: When and where do you like to write?

EE: So far, I’ve been writing at home but I’ve been known to write at cafés. I guess I prefer to write at home. I’ve got a treadmill desk and I sort of stand at the desk, and walk, and do some writing that way. It’s my office at home. It’s a treadmill with a nice stable desk on top, and you walk and write.

AUN: What time of day do you start?

EE: Around 9:30 or 10 in the morning, and then I will write until 3:30.

AUN: What was your pre-kids routine?

EE: If I didn’t have kids, I would write more; I would write twice as much. In the past, it was similar except the hours were longer. So I could start earlier and end later. My husband is also a writer and back when we didn’t have kids, we would write at really strange hours of the day—like 10 at night, and work until 4 in the morning. And then sleep till noon.

Try and prioritize. And if that means you have to sit down and make a physical list, then you should do that. Prioritize whatever it is that you want to achieve, on any given day, and then just go down that list.

AUN: Any rituals around writing? Like when you’ve actually finished a novel, or a chapter, to celebrate those milestones?

EE: Usually when you finish a novel, that’s when you sort of go crazy a little bit, you know, with the socializing. Because it’s such an isolating thing to be sitting in a room writing a novel. I mean, I say I work five-and-a-half hours a day, but there are probably three or four evenings a week where I come back and try and get in an hour or two extra in the evening, after the children are sleeping.

So you’re not seeing tonnes of people; it’s quite isolating. When you finish a draft, or finish the whole book edit, then it’s just time to see everybody! You go out every night, or have people come over for dinner, and these kinds of things.

AUN: By nature are you a social person? Some people who are introverted say it’s just a no-brainer for them to be isolated at home writing.

EE: I would say I am introverted person, but I like socializing, too. I like to see people. Sometimes when you’re really, really deep into a book and you’ve worked up to 14 hours a day, you just feel terrible, and so alone—like you’ve been at the bottom of a pit for months and months. But then you come out of it, and you see people, and it’s all good; you did your work and you’ve got a book. So that’s good!

AUN: Are you able to disclose what your new book is about?

EE: No, I wouldn’t like to do that.

I’ve got a treadmill desk and I sort of stand at the desk, and walk, and do some writing that way. It’s my office at home. It’s a treadmill with a nice stable desk on top, and you walk and write.

AUN: Are there any authors that have inspired you?

EE: There are so many. I’d say early influences are people like Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, Cormack McCarthy. This sounds pretentious, but probably around the age of 19, I was obsessed with Tolstoy. I would re-read War and Peace—and Dostoyevsky as well. So every year I was reading Crime and Punishment, over and over. I probably stopped re-visiting the book when I was around 30. With Dostoyevsky, whom I was just obsessed with, now I find it hard-going; I’m not as enamoured with his work as I used to be. I’m just not interested in whatever it was that was once so alive to me.

AUN: How old were you when you started writing?

EE: Probably about 13. I was very young. [I wrote] mainly on my own, and then in literature courses you’re always writing essays etc., which I didn’t mind doing.

AUN: Did you know at a certain age that you were going to publish a novel?

EE: Yeah, yeah, it felt inevitable—probably at 18, or so. I think once I got to University of Victoria and was around the writing department and fellow writers, student writers, and actually studying with real writers who would give me feedback. Then it seemed like ‘okay; I will definitely write a novel, or a book of stories when I’m done. I’m going to try and publish something.’

AUN: And now you’re that person for so many people at AU—who might be in the same boat you were in. That must feel kind of like coming full circle?

EE: Yes, it does. That’s funny!

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